Post script on pet ownership

Milligan the cat (brother of Spike), engaged in a sit-in

On my last piece, on pet ownership, I got a comment from Alfred: Genesis 1:26, Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Whether or not you believe every word of the Good Book, this is simply a statement of the obvious.  We do indeed have dominion.  The human population of the world is just shy of seven billion, whereas the populations of other large mammals are too often measured in hundreds.  I say this with no satisfaction — merely to illustrate that we are, like it or not, the dominant species.  We raise livestock for meat, but no animal farms us.  We eat many different species, but no animal predates on humans (bar the odd surfer).

And while I accept that we are first cousins to the apes and second cousins to other mammals, we are nonetheless different.  Fundamentally so.

We used to say that we were unique in our use of tools.  But recently, we read more and more about animals using tools.  Birds select thorns to winkle insects out of tree bark.  Sea otters use stones to crack shell-fish.  Chimps use stones to crack nuts.  Chimps also prepare tools — for example stripping a twig to dip into ants’ nests to extract ants.  But humans are surely unique in the complexity of their tools.  Just put a stripped twig beside a Boeing 747.

Most experts believe that the consciousness of animals — even large-brained mammals — is not on the same plane as human consciousness.  And surely everyone would accept that animals are not capable of abstract thought, or moral judgments, or of considering ideas remote in time and space.  When a squirrel buries nuts for the winter, that’s not planning months ahead — that’s just instinct.

My point is simply that people are so far ahead of cats and dogs in cognitive power that it is inevitable that we come ahead of cats and dogs in the pecking order, and therefore reality is quite properly reflected in the terms “pet” and “ownership” against which Professor Linzey fulminates.  For the whole of Professor Linzey’s case is about eliminating status differences between humans and pets.  The words “pet” and “ownership” imply an unequal relationship, whereas his preferred terms “companion animal” and “human carer” do not.

Professor Linzey makes another fundamental error, which again results from his anthropomorphic mind-set.  He seems to think that there is a benefit to pets if we eliminate status differences — however real and immediate those differences may be.  This seems to be an unwarranted read-across from the anti-discrimination orthodoxy in human relationships.  But for dogs at least, exactly the reverse is true.  The dog is a pack animal.  It is comfortable with a pack structure, which implies hierarchy, pecking order, and a “top dog”.

It is very important that a pet dog recognises its owner as “top dog”.  There are well-documented cases of (for example) elderly couples of gentle manners taking on a dog with too much personality, which decides that in the absence of a dominant family member, it should adopt the position of top dog itself.  This can result in severe behavioral difficulties, sometimes requiring the dog to be put down.

Thus Professor Linzey’s nostrums not only fail to provide any benefit for a pet dog, but actually work against its instincts, its interests and its psychology.  A dog needs a master, which justifies and necessitates the asymmetric relationship of owner and pet.  Linzey’s ideas are not merely useless.  They are actually bad for animal welfare.  It is this sort of woolly thinking which tends to bring science and ethics into disrepute, and opens them to ridicule.

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3 Responses to Post script on pet ownership

  1. Heather Alibakir says:

    I don’t usually disagree with Roger, but ( I shall have to be careful to “whisper” this) I am the personal shopper for two cats who lie in bed all day while I lug tins back from the supermarket!
    Seriously, come on Professor, please lighten up. Perhaps you could go and start building another ark: I believe that with the way things are going, we shall be needing it.

  2. Alfred says:

    For Heather “Dogs have Owners, Cats have Staff.”

  3. Andrew Shakespeare says:

    “Pet” = 1 syllable.

    “Companion animal” = 6 syllables.

    I don’t see it catching on.

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